‘Now, who the Divell taught thee so much Italian?’ Language-learning for historians of early modern England

[This guest post comes from John Gallagher of the University of Leeds. He also can be found on twitter talking about language, education and mobility.]

In an English-Italian phrasebook written in 1578, one character complained about the rudeness of the English towards foreigners, muttering that ‘fewe of these English men delight to haue their chyldren learne diuers languages, whiche thing displeaseth me’. He and his fellow-speakers discussed how best to learn languages, how fast it could be done, and whether it was worthwhile, with one speaker complaining that ‘I reade, write, and speake three or foure tongues, and yet I finde no profite’.[1] Four centuries ago, the usefulness of language-learning was already up for debate.

Early modern England, like England today, was multilingual. It was a country where Latin (and Greek and Hebrew) was heard in schools and universities, where Law French and Latin were spoken in the courts, where Dutch and French were languages of London courtrooms and fenland towns. While English tourists polished their Italian at home and abroad, soldiers and sailors encountered languages from Swedish and Spanish to Ottoman Turkish or Akan. From Ireland to India and from the Americas to Japan, England’s global expansion was shaped by multilingual meetings.

Elizabeth_I's_primer_on_Irish

Irish/Latin/English phrasebook compiled for and used by Elizabeth I of England (Wikimedia Commons)

Studying a language other than English can be of enormous value to historians. For students of early modern England, language skills can highlight new voices, new sources, and new perspectives on familiar histories. The UK – and the historical profession – seem to be facing a language crisis, so it couldn’t be more important to support our students in developing language skills or in putting ones they already have to use in their work as historians. From students who want to start a language from scratch to those who come to us with excellent Welsh, Polish, or Punjabi, as teachers we can always do more to show our students how their skills and interests can enrich their work as historians of all places and periods.

With this in mind, and partly prompted by Rebecca Rideal’s twitter discussion on the topic, I’ve put together some suggestions for students, researchers, and teachers who are interested in the rich and multilingual histories of early modern England and the early modern world (and hopefully many that will be of use beyond this period). Here are some resources that might be helpful to any early modernist seeking to learn a new language, or looking to brush up on one they’ve studied before:

  • Look at what your university offers. You might be surprised at the free and accessible language-learning resources and opportunities on your own campus. Many universities have subscriptions to language-learning programmes like Rosetta Stone, which offer self-study courses you can follow in your own time. Needless to say, if your university has a language department it’s worth seeing whether students (or staff!) can enrol on their courses, and chatting to your tutors in history about what you could do as a historian with your new language skills.
  • Use your library. University libraries and public libraries are often goldmines for helpful language-learning materials (the same is true of Language Centre libraries, if you’re lucky enough to be at a university that has one). There are countless resources and they’re different for every language, but book series like the Teach Yourself or Colloquial books and CDs are good starting-points, and for a growing number of European and non-European languages I really recommend the Michel Thomas CD courses, which are all-audio and perfect for a commute (if you don’t mind talking to yourself on the bus).
  • Apps are your friend. Apps can be a great way to get started learning a language, but they’re also helpful for building in drills and everyday revision into your schedule. Duolingo is a really useful tool for building competence in a wide and growing range of languages (particularly in reading). Memrise and Anki can be very helpful for learning vocabulary and testing yourself, and it’s particularly helpful to be able to make your own virtual flashcards and vocab lists for words and phrases that are relevant to your period and interests. Anki seems to really help students learning unfamiliar writing systems, too.
  • Free online courses. You’d be amazed (I was) at the number and quality of language courses that can be accessed freely online. You could try an entry-level Norwegian course here, an all-audio beginners’ Icelandic course (made by my brilliant Leeds colleague Alaric Hall) here, or materials for learning medieval and early modern Latin at the National Archives website. There are so many more – have a look!
  • One-on-one online lessons. Italki is an online platform which offers language lessons with professional teachers or amateur ‘community tutors’. It’s flexible (in terms of timing and the material you cover), one-on-one, and often very competitively priced compared to private lessons in person. With a private teacher, you could even work on reading texts from your period together. And you don’t even need to pay – you can arrange conversation exchanges with speakers of your target language for free, too.
  • If you’re new to a language and trying to get used to listening to it, there are some great simple podcasts for learners available in a variety of languages (for Dutch, I found Radio Taalblad really helpful, though sadly they seem not to be making them anymore!) As you progress, a great way to practice your listening skills and to learn relevant language about history is to listen to history podcasts in your target language. Some good examples are Eine Stunde History in German, or La Fabrique de l’Histoire in French.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to help you. History lecturers who work with the language you’re interested in will generally be delighted that a student or a colleague wants to learn it, and can be a great support and source of help. They’ll also offer advice on how you can use your language skills in essays or dissertation research. There are also great conversation groups in universities and outside where you can meet speakers of your target language. If you’re based at a university, think about connecting with visiting students, too, who might be grateful for the chance to do a tandem exchange where you can each share your language with the other.
  • Early modern resources! What better way to get your head around early modern languages than to use the texts used by early modern learners themselves? There’s a French-English dictionary from 1611 here, and an Italian-English one from 1611 here. Databases of early modern dictionaries are helpful too – there’s the Lexicon of Early Modern English (which includes material from multilingual dictionaries), or this searchable database of French dictionaries from the 17th century onwards. I have almost no Latin, and I’d be utterly useless without the search function of William Whittaker’s Words. And if you search Early English Books Online, you’ll find early modern language aids for everything from Spanish and German to Malay and Narragansett.

These suggestions only scratch the surface, and I hope people will offer their own advice and share their own experiences of language-learning as historians in the comments section below. The key thing to remember, though, is that there are great resources out there – and ones you can access either freely or cheaply – that can really set you on your way to learning and using other languages as a historian. We can probably all agree that the speaker from that 1578 phrasebook was taking it a little too far when he argued for ‘such a Lawe, that if one shold bring vp his children, without teaching them somthyng, & especially to reade, write, and speake diuers languages, that he should be beheaded, or els punished greeuously’.[2] Let’s keep our heads and support students and colleagues in exploring the multilingual early modern.


[1] John Florio, Florio his firste fruites (London, 1578), fos. 51r-51v.

[2] Ibid., fo. 62r.

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4 thoughts on “‘Now, who the Divell taught thee so much Italian?’ Language-learning for historians of early modern England

  1. At least one modern foreign language and Latin O-Level used to be an admission requirement to read History. For prelims at the end of the first term, we had to pass Bede in the original Latin and De Tocqueville in French. For Pol Thought paper, it was necessary to read Rousseau in the French. When I went for interview at QMC (as it was), we were presented with a French document five minutes before the interview and asked to translate it. The decline is very sad. Personally, I’d still much rather use a textbook than some app.

  2. Hmm, well, what I use now: Monique Huillier, Advanced French Grammar (Cambridge, 5th printing, 2005) (because my A-Level grammar text is no longer available); Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (London, 1993 repr.) (can’t remember my school textbook); Butt & Benjamin, A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish (secondhand copy); and, of course, Gooder, Latin for Local History, alongside Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (school text). I just can’t remember anything from using apps. I do listen to vocabulary CDs whilst driving – forgotten so much in that respect.

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